Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Teilhardian Shift, Part 1

Today’s Post

The last post took a look at religion and science as historical phenomena, each addressing the quest for understanding as seen from their particular perspectives.  To look at these subjects as phenomena involves placing them in the context of origins, ‘becomings’, and states.  Each began somewhere, developed via a unique process, and emerged as a phenomenon which can be described, explored and encountered.  Each one, effectively, evolved.  Today’s post will explore the unique evolutionary perspective of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Teilhard, as a paleontologist, firmly believed that the concept of evolution, as opposed to being antithetical to the belief in God, actually can be seen as a path to belief.

A Very Brief History of Evolution

Evolution as such has always been historically understood in a vague and intuitive way.  For example, one of the first things that Christians did to validate their new beliefs was to identify the lineage of Jesus, to show that the Old Testament prophets foretold his appearance long before his birth and thus locate him at the apex of a long process of ‘coming to be’.  This is not so different from the standard practice of rulers claiming dynastic succession as a basis for their legitimacy.  Knowing (or believing) the precedents of a subject was a necessary part of the understanding of it: it was one tool in unravelling the hermeneutical paradox.

This vague and intuitive approach was to be stood on its head with Charles Darwin, in his groundbreaking book, “On the Origin of Species” which made the astounding claim that all living things ‘descended’ from previous living things: that they ‘evolved’.  This new perspective on reality was to become a leaven for science in that it offered an objective approach to study living things: to put them in a context of precedents and antecedents.  It is also seen by many as an enemy of religion since, taken to its perceived full meaning, it seems to contradict religious traditions and their holy books, suggests the absence of a creator, and hence undermines most expressions of belief.

As pregnant with meaning as this theory has proved to be, however, it has left the great majority of reality unexamined.  Evolution, as articulated by Darwin, successful though it may be in explaining the march of living things, does not address the whole of reality.  It is a partial explanation, only addressing the most recent small fraction of a percent of the history of the universe.

The same science which brought us the theory of evolution was, some hundred years later, to open our eyes to the billions of years of the development which makes the parts which would populate the cells which would then ‘evolve’.  This same sweeping vision of a vast past also suggested a future of equal dimensions.  The idea of an evolution at the cosmic level, the level of the entire universe, was born.

Not surprisingly, this new vista of evolution was seized upon by detractors of religion as even more evidence for their stance.  With Darwin’s new perspective ‘atheism’ became an acceptable viewpoint, along with religion.   New social structures emerged which outlawed religion as “an opiate of the people”, a system of suppression which should be eliminated so that the true nature of man could freely emerge.  Even today, the battle over the concept between atheists and creationists continues unabated.  What was it about the concept of evolution that so inspired Teilhard?

The Teilhardian Shift

Like many other thinkers of the time, Teilhard was stimulated by the new perspectives of time and space that began to surface at the end of the nineteenth century.  Both cosmologists and biologists had begun to envision the incredible spans of time that must have occurred in order for the universe (and life) to evolve to its current order.  Physicists were beginning to postulate (and develop methods to observe) an ever-smaller series of entities that underpinned the composition of matter, as well as the incredible energies which held them together.  Psychologists were beginning to plumb the unconscious states of the mind.  Social scientists were beginning to formulate theories of human behavior in terms  heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection”.  In some parts of the world, eighteenth century feudal societies were being disrupted and replaced by governments which incorporated concepts of evolution in their manifestos.

What Does Science Say?

The “Standard Model” of physics ( postulates that the smallest entities in the universe (appearing all at once in ‘the big bang’) immediately begin to unite with other particles under the influence of certain forces.  The products of this unification are capable of then uniting with other particles of their class, which produce new entities, and so on.  Over long periods of time this results in the rich material world which we see now.  (The URL above overviews the standard model and identifies these particles and forces.)

Unlike the case for biology, science does not have an underlying theory for the ‘engine’ of evolution of matter prior to the cell, just an increasingly detailed understanding of how entities are composed.

For living things, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection forms a good basis for the replication and survival of living things prior to the human.  Effectively, Natural Selection is the ‘engine’ of biological evolution.

In the case of the human, while many schools of thought propose that humans continue to be subject to the ‘laws’ of natural selection, their conclusions about human activity are at best very clumsy.

So science sees evolution of the universe occurring in three stages:

Pre Life: Physical entities united by forces described by physics and chemistry.

Life: Biological entities united by forces described by Darwinistic Natural Selection.

Humans:  Human persons united by Darwinistic influences?

As we will see below, the jury’s still out on this last stage.

What did Teilhard Say?

As his interest in science and technology grew, Teilhard found himself increasingly distressed over the perceived gap between the cosmic viewpoints of religion and science.  This led him to his point of view that science and religion simply represented different methods of understanding the nature of the universe, and particularly the nature of the human person.  His writings continuously sought to bring them into some level of cohesion.  He believed (and it is the underlying thesis of this blog) that, consistent with the history of the universe, science and religion will continue to evolve, and that as they do, their basis for cohesion will become more apparent.

He was also distressed that as this new scientific perspective unfolded, it was accompanied by an increasing materialistic aspect on one hand, and a vigorous attack by religion on the other.  His life’s goal was to show that neither of these extreme positions were valid; rather that the two perspectives could be brought into a harmonious cohesion in which both would be enhanced and the full potential of human existence could be better understood.

His approach to this goal was to look at cosmic evolution (the unfolding of the universe over time, including biological and human evolution) as a single, ongoing process.  In doing so, he sought to identify the underlying principles at play in the process, and show how these principles reappear over and over in the process, and can be seen to be at work in human evolution today.

This approach, of course, does not find universal acceptance, being too materialistic for believers and too religious for scientists.  Followed through to its logical conclusions, however, it can be seen to open a new and very positive perspective for both.

Teilhard’s Observations on Evolution

Teilhard, who wrote in advance of the development of the Standard Model, makes several observations about the process as it was then known:

Simplicity and Time: Simpler entities always correspond to an earlier era of time.  The simplest and smallest came first in what came to be called “The Big Bang”.

Complexity and Time: Over time, new manifestations of matter appear as more complex than the previous.  This increased complexity results in an increased capacity for union, and produces an increase in the complexity of the products of the new unions.  Teilhard saw this in the basic evolution of protons and neutrons, then atoms, then molecules over long periods of time.  Science since then has continued its march ‘downwards’, in which this same process is seen to hold for even simpler forms of matter, such as in the growth from quarks and leptons to protons and neutrons.

Entities and Forces: These unions take place under the influence of forces; initially the strong and weak nuclear forces, then as the particles gather mass, the force of gravity.  All the steps in evolution can be seen to take place between increasingly complex entities joined by new and more complex forces.

Discontinuities: Such steps in evolution aren’t necessarily continuous, but can be distinctively discontinuous.  Such is the case of the evolution of simple atoms (helium and hydrogen, in abundant supply in the gaseous clouds which populate the universe) to more complex atoms (oxygen and carbon, as the basis of molecular development in planets).  The simpler gasses become stars by being drawn into smaller and smaller volumes by gravity, compressed into nuclear infernos in which electrons are stripped and nuclei enriched, resulting in more complex atoms.  When the star explodes, these atoms are strewn into surrounding space, where the force of gravity again pulls them in to form the many molecules (such as carbon, air and water) which make up planetary systems.

Evolution of Living Things: This process continues through the development of biological life, and is well understood via Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection” in which living things evolve through the process of replication and survival.  Having gone through a ‘change of state’ with the appearance of the cell, cosmic evolution continues to produce more complex entities whose increase in complexity come about through the influence of new forces.

Human Evolution: The process continues on through the development of very complex brains in which consciousness emerges, another change of state, and influences of new forces which promote further complexity.

Hence the history of the universe can be summarized as the appearance of more complex entities under the influence of increasingly complex fields of force:

– Atoms, molecules, cells, brains and consciousness, all bursting forth newly formed with new potentialities and subject to new forces.

– Three waves, or stages of evolution: the stage of physics, the stage of biology and the stage of humanity, each delineated by a step change of complexity in which the newly formed entity can now cooperate with a new type of energy to continue the rise to increased complexity.

In the words of Teilhard: “…the history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of every more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen”

This very brief and overly simplistic summary of his observations summarizes Teilhard’s basic vision, and as we will see in later postings, can be seen as a basis for understanding the existence of God in a way that does not compromise either Western religious concepts of the basis for scientific thought.

The next post will carry Teilhard’s vision into the evolution of living things, and begin to address some implications.

Religion and Science – An Overview

Two Modes of Understanding: Empirical and Intuitive

In general, when we understand something, our understanding, our grasp of the truth of the ‘something’ we are after, is based on some combination of empirical and intuitive actions.  The term, ‘empirical’ implies an understanding grounded in unequivocal information, such as the reading of a thermometer, and ‘intuitive’ in the sense of just ‘feeling’ cold.  If we ‘feel’ cold but the thermometer reading reads ‘warm’ are we still cold?  Is one of these conclusions better than the other?  This dichotomy is one of the many at the basis of the tension between science and religion.

As a way to put these two modes of understanding in context, I’d like to offer two perspectives on human history.

A Brief History of Religion and the Rise of Science 

Based on sketchy paleontology, the earliest human artifacts date back to approximately 30,000 years ago, and seem to be religious objects.  This is not surprising.  We can speculate on the quality of life of the earliest human, in small bands of hunters and gatherers, following herds across unforgiving terrain and managing a tenuous existence in the face of weather, disease, warfare and the predations of wildlife.  It makes sense that these earliest peoples saw their surroundings as hostile, and placed a high value on understanding and attempting to manage them.  They saw the actions of spiritual beings, gods and animals, as implicit in nature, and sought to have some influence on their surroundings through the placation of these beings.  The beliefs, as naive as they appear to us now, were nonetheless reassuring at the time.  This ongoing attempt to understand, manage and capitalize on the underlying powers and forces that make up reality comprise our history.

These early attempts to engage the environment not only contributed to the confidence of the groups.  By being communal they also contributed to the sense of society which in itself added to the security of the group.  The cohesion of society in turn provided a basis for the origin and dissemination of discoveries (such as tides and seasons) which gathered accuracy over generations of observation.  The oral traditions which contained these ‘truths’ about the environment were expressed in terms of mythology and metaphors and were maintained in the form of communal rituals which provided three essential values to their societies: reassurance, coherence and information.  From the very start, the coherence between empirical (observations) and intuitive (meaning) was maintained by these rituals.  The word that we use today, ‘religion’ was the all-encompassing fabric of the earliest societies.

Knowledge, couched in terms of myths and metaphors, was manifested in such a way as to be capable of being passed on from generation to generation.  Ritual was engaged in as a way of communicating imparted acquired wisdom to members of the family, clan or tribe.  Cyclic events, such as phases of the moon, seasons, repeatable and weather cycles were celebrated communally and provided both guidance on sustenance (crops, hunting) as well as a measure of faith, a reassurance, that the future would be survivable.  The winter solstice, for example, was celebrated as the beginning of longer days which would soon give rise to spring, a diminishment of the many threats of winter and a beginning of the planting season.

As society evolved, so did the slow increase in periods of leisure which permitted humans to reflect on not only what they saw in nature, but in what they saw in their rituals and the beliefs which provided them their structure.  This gave rise to the many perspectives on the ultimate truths which it was believed could be accessed through such reflections.

Karen Armstrong documents the beginnings of the six great thought systems which first sought to articulate these truths, and which have given rise to the mainstream religions of today in her book, “The Great Transformations”.  These beginnings date back to the “Axial age”, approximately three thousand years ago, and consist of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Monotheism in Israel and philosophical rationalism in Greece.  This was the period of the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius and Euripides, all of who can still inform us because they show the many facets of what a human being should be. She sees the Axial age as one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history.  To her, there would be nothing comparable until the Great Western Transformation which created our own scientific and technological modernity.

These schools of thought arose as society continued to evolve from nomadic tribes to city and state based organizations, along with their experiments in organization.  Much of the thinking of these early prophets was either in concert with the unfolding “rules” of the new spirals of civilization, or in critique against them.  In all cases, however, the power of religious leaders was considerable, perceived as necessary for the custody of traditional beliefs.  The complexity and breadth of their hierarchy was just as authoritative as that of the civic organization and frequently intertwined.  In general, to the extent that it existed, knowledge of the history and composition of man’s environment (the heavens, the seas, the earth) was the domain of religion.

In the West, this aspect of religion as the domain of all human knowledge continued with renewed vigor as Christianity became more intertwined with the politics of the ruling parties.  As many critiques of religion are quick to point out, however, this period of development in the West was accompanied by much evil, corruption and destruction: all laid at the feet of religion.  Karen Armstrong, in her book, “Fields of Blood” sees this as more probably due to the rise of western nationalism and the dissolution of empires.

During this period, however, the seeds of rationalism planted in fifth century BC Greece began to arise, in which a view of the world emerges in which religious beliefs are backed with logic.  Christianity itself, through ideas such as those proposed in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, began to develop a rationalist approach to its teachings.

The development of more sophisticated tools during this period, such as microscopes and telescopes, added to the objective (empirical) understanding of reality and begin to offer a context for understanding both the human being and the planet Earth.  This context was in conflict with the ‘official’ teachings of the Christian church, which was still a source of authority in society.  For the first time in the West, the ‘secular’ viewpoint emerged.

As humans evolved through their societies, their improved perception of reality, through long cycles of trial and error, initially captured in myths, metaphors and laws, contributed to human well-being.  Knowledge was not only continuously refined and passed on as part of this process, the process of human cognition itself was improved.  Not only was more understood, the process of acquiring this understanding itself was improved.  This led to increasingly objective (empirical) knowledge and a decreasing dependency upon intuition.  Further, with the advancements of communication and the collegial nature of science, the trial-and-error process of refining empirical knowledge was recognized as much faster than that of intuitive knowledge.

Yet Another Take on History: The Hermeneutical Paradox, and How Humans Have Solved It

The ‘Hermeneutical Paradox’ is a term used for the following conundrum:

When faced with a complex subject, one’s understanding of the subject will always be confounded by its complexity.  If starting “from the top” (trying to address the subject from the most global perspective, the “biggest picture”), understanding is stymied by lack of understanding the many and complex details.  Conversely, if we start “from the bottom”, since we didn’t understand the big picture the details make no sense.  Therefore if we don’t grasp the big picture, the details don’t make sense; if we didn’t get the details, the big picture doesn’t make sense.

We can apply the Hermeneutical Paradox to human history:

Early humans had to make sense of things if they were to understand their surroundings in such a way which would facilitate their faith, their confidence.  This involved putting what they saw into some sort of context.  Such understanding, even if expressed in myths and metaphors, would contribute a sense of confidence, a reassurance.  It provided a “big picture” which would provide a context into which all things could be better understood: effectively a step toward resolving the Hermeneutical Paradox.  Effectively this offered an ‘intuitive’ basis for reconciling ‘empirical’ information.

These assumptions, initially manifested in myths and metaphors, provided a direction of inquiry, the validity of which could be either affirmed or denied as consequences of the beliefs began to emerge (eg, “last year we planted after the third full moon, and the frost didn’t destroy the shoots”).  Such assumptions permitted extension of the belief to the whole fabric of being, and hence constituted a basis for belief about self, which in turn shored up faith which enabled action.

Primitive man had to work out this process based on very little empirical information.  What was known objectively was vastly outweighed by what was imagined, what was known intuitively.  This of course unfolded along with the trial and error process.  Those successes (eg, in agriculture, warfare, building, etc) were added to the myths and metaphors, and consequently acquired authority.

Hence the myths and metaphors that eventually became organized religion were the stuff by which society progressed.  While primitive to our minds, this dialog between intuitive and empirical understanding (under the general umbrella of religion seen as an amalgam of society and belief) was efficacious: it worked.  Effectively, religion offered a resolution to the Hermeneutical Paradox.  Details supported by myths acquired coherence, which explained the ‘big picture’, and hence offered a pathway to faith, the basis for action.  It also served as a tool to manage society as it began to coagulate from the many streams of clans to the clots of humanity in the earliest cities.

The down side?

Early societies were heavily influenced by, if not actually based, on religious beliefs.  Many were based upon lessons learned by successes and failures of the past, but many evolved to support the power structures of early societies and became an end in themselves.  Knowledge of the world was often poorly distinguished from knowledge of the beyond and objectively confused with religion.

The many tendrils and modes of belief, however, continued to fan out, encountering other tendrils, often clashing, sometimes melding, but always expanding. New myths and metaphors were developed which better explained, and hence offered more confidence in, the new and frequently frightening and threatening circumstances which resulted from the collisions between societies, and from the increased tensions created by the concatenation and compression within the societies themselves.

Eventually, in the West as early as the 1600’s, the empirical grasp of knowledge, the objective description of reality, began to overtake that of intuition.  It slowly began to be seen as superior in three ways:

Universality:  Being objective, it is capable of being captured in the same way of other persons who do not share your basic beliefs

Faster Pace:  The “trial-and-error” process is much quicker: it does not take generations to affirm/verify or falsify a belief

Verifiability:  It is provable.  A belief, being quantifiable, is testable and can be independently verified

A critic of religion would say, “Today the pursuit of knowledge has been finally unshackled from the constraints of religion”.  Just a few weeks ago, atheist scientist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss announced that religion could disappear in the near future (“in a generation”) if schools would just “..present comparative religion as a bunch of interesting historical anecdotes, and show the silly reasons why they did what they did.”

Just get the schools to teach the right stuff.  How hard could it be?

Are We There Yet?

Looking again at the evolution of human society, however, we can see religion addressing three basic human needs: reassurance, coherence and information.  Science certainly offers a much improved way of gathering information about our environment, and the coherence (the incorporation of facts into a generally coherent interpretation) among this information has certainly improved over the contradictory nature of the intuitive picture of the universe predominant only a few hundred years ago, but what about reassurance?  Does the impressive library of information gathered by science in the last few years offer any reassurance?  For that matter, now surely well protected from the vagaries of nature, is the human person still in need of it?

And, what about ‘coherence’?  Even though disconnects can still be found in many scientific findings (eg quantum vs relativistic physics), scientific information is still pretty coherent.  More importantly than that, however, is the glaring, but mostly unacknowledged gap between knowledge at the level of physics, chemistry and to some extent, biology; and the level of life as lived by the human person.  Can any body of information claim to be coherent without addressing what is (to us, at least) the most important manifestation of reality: the human person?

Attempts such as ‘sociobiology’ have offered clumsy attempts at applying Darwinistic ‘natural laws’ to human behavior, but fall far short of providing any valuable direction or consistent relevance to the daily business of building lives.

Teilhard has some thoughts on this:

“Contemporary man has passed through a period of great illusion in imagining that, having attained a better knowledge of himself and the world, he has no more need of religion. The result of the two great modern discoveries of space and time, culminating in the knowledge of evolution, has undoubtedly been to produce many detailed schematizations.  It may consequently have seemed (at least for a moment) that nothing of our past beliefs remained.  Indeed there have been a great number of systems in which the fact of religion was interpreted as a psychological phenomenon linked with the childhood of humanity.  At its greatest, at the origins of civilization, it had gradually to decline and give place to more positive theories from which God (a personal and transcendent God above all) must be excluded.”

The Way Forward

Can these two natural but seemingly antithetical modes of human understanding be brought into any degree of coherence without diluting them to a degree which makes them irrelevant?  Putting the question the other way around: can the underlying visions of Science and Religion be refined, honed, focused and more adroitly harnessed in service to human evolution?

Along these lines, can the great theories of science: physics, cosmology and evolution, be understood in such a way that can be seen to support our individual human yearnings, resulting in increased confidence and the ultimate abundance of life?  And can this be done at the same time that the great pronouncements of religion are more clearly understood as manifestations of these same theories?

One of Teilhard’s greatest goals was , “A clearer disclosure of God in the world”.  And in keeping with this, the answers to the questions posed above will be pursued in this blog.  The short answer, and I’ll let the cat out of the bag right now, is, simply, “yes”.

How do we get there?  The next post will turn to yet another perspective on history, this one taken from a higher level yet: that of the universe itself.  All the things that have been discussed in this post can be seen from a higher vantage point, and in the never-ending search for a solution to the cosmic Hermeneutical Paradox.  This is where we’ll begin next time.